Since the 1 the 1980s, federal appropriations for infrastructure have declined dramatically — by 70% in the case of water and wastewater. Although President Barack Obama has promised to reverse that trend, his focus on the environment will profoundly influence federal funding philosophies: He's said he would require elected officials in urban areas to make energy conservation part of their planning if they are to receive federal transportation funding, and he's proposed a grant program for cities and states that are early adopters of green-building and energy-efficiency programs.
Such initiatives reflect his goal of building “a new partnership with state and local civic, political, and business leaders to enact a truly national infrastructure policy that recognizes that we must upgrade our infrastructure to meet the demands of a growing population, a changing economy, and our short- and long-term energy challenges.”
Only time will tell how far his ad ministration gets in mobilizing such an effort, but one thing is certain: Obama understands the value of investing in public works. During one campaign speech, he pledged that his administration would use infrastructure — including roads, bridges, and water facilities — to create 2 million jobs.
REVIVING OUR ROADS
As a candidate, Obama proposed creating a “national infrastructure reinvestment bank,” an independent entity charged with investing $60 billion over the next 10 years in transportation projects. But because he has opposed increasing the federal gas tax, it's not clear where the money would come from.
The tax isn't indexed to the inflation rate and hasn't been raised in 15 years. The nonpartisan National Surface Transportation Policy and Revenue Study Commission recommends gradually increasing it to 40 cents/gallon.
To prevent immediate cutbacks in road and bridge maintenance, Obama proposed a one-time $25 billion emergency “jobs and growth fund” that would be distributed to the states via the Highway Trust Fund. While he's hinted at seeking private-sector funds, the main source of long-term transportation funding remains nebulous.
The American Society of Civil Engineers (ASCE) estimates that the government needs to invest $1.6 trillion in infrastructure improvements — including $300 billion on roads and bridges — over the next five years. The American Association of State Highway and Transportation Officials says 3,000 projects worth $17.9 billion could be put out to bid within three months — as soon as federal funds are made available.
Although $60 billion's not nearly enough, any funding would greatly help, says U.S. Rep. James Oberstar (D-Minn.), chair of the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee.
At the 2008 national convention of the American Road and Transportation Builders Association (ARTBA) in October, Oberstar cited Texas Transportation Institute research indicating that congestion costs Americans $78 billion annually, and that the only way to reduce the cost of products is to reduce the cost of delivering those products.
“That happens with more investment in infrastructure,” he said.
Near-term high highway funding will require $32 billion — nearly three times the amount in September's economic stimulus package, according to Louisville, Ky., Mayor Jerry Abramson, who testified before Oberstar's committee later that month. Pointing out that nearly 70% of city roads are in subpar condition, Abramson urged that “additional highway stimulus funds not be distributed based on the current state-based status-quo system.”
Similarly, a former House member says one key to getting the economy back on track is to approve projects with as little interference as possible from lobbyists and bureaucrats.
“The next reauthorization bill has to include expedited permitting of projects,” former U.S. Rep. Dennis Hastert (R-Ill.), who served as speaker of the House from 1999 to 2006, told ARTBA convention attendees. “Not by ignoring environmental concerns, but not by getting hung up on them either.”
That, however, may prove to be a bone of contention with the new administration.
Cameron Davis, senior environmental and energy policy adviser to Obama's campaign, told attendees of the 81st annual Water Environment Federation Technical Exhibition and Conference (WEFTEC) in October that one of Obama's top commitments is to environmentally sustainable infrastructure and that many of his other priorities stem from that.
“We're looking at a $500 billion funding gap in the next 20 years for infrastructure,” Davis said. “Look at the energy side of things: Municipalities spend 30% to 60% of their energy bills to move and treat water. It's very energy-intensive, and one of the ways to get more value for the dollar in infrastructure is to work with states and municipalities to move toward more renewable and less-expensive energy sources.”
Obama's ambitious environmental plan includes the proposal that at least 30% of the federal government's electricity should be derived from renewable sources by 2020 and that the buildings be 40% more efficient within the next five years and have zero emissions by 2025.
A NEW BREED OF WATER REGULATIONS
As a senator from Illinois, Obama abstained from voting on the Water Resources and Development Act (WWRDA), designed to fund upgrades such as modernizing lock and dam systems on the Mississippi and Illinois rivers and restoring the Florida Everglades.
However, he's said he would champion the Clean Water State Revolving Fund, which Davis called the “lifeblood” of water infrastructure funding. “It's the machinery that helps deal with stormwater issues in urban areas. [Obama] also will take an active interest in agricultural runoff through the EPA to restrict animal feeding,” Davis told WEFTEC attendees.
When Congress enacted the Clean Water Act in 1972, it addressed single-point sources of discharge. Since then, nonpoint sources such as stormwater and agricultural runoff have made reducing pollution much more challenging. “We need to do a much better job of regulating those sources,” Davis told WEFTEC attendees.
Obama has indicated he'd support the EPA, which in October finalized a rule requiring concentrated animal feeding operations (CAFO) to safely manage manure, in more strictly monitoring uncontrolled livestock grazing and feedlots. The rule requires that operators submit a nutrient management plan as part of a permit application.
The new administration also is expected to work fast to improve treatment infrastructure and regulate emerging contaminants. During the campaign, Obama proposed to increase federal funding for treatment facility projects as well as best-management practices that address storm-water runoff.
Louisville Mayor Abramson urged Congress to allocate $19 billion — more than twice the amount in September's bailout legislation — directly to cities as grants to rehabilitate aging water and sewer infrastructure, comply with sewer overflow issues, and protect source water.
The ACSE has called for even more federal funding: $1.6 trillion in drinking water and waste-water improvements over the next 20 years and $10 billion to rehabilitate dams and levees over the next 12 years.
Obama also proposed updating regulations for pharmaceuticals and perchlorate, which in October the EPA declined to regulate. But the agency's mandate may change if legislation proposed by Senate Environment and Public Works Chair Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.) in 2007 is approved.
The Perchlorate Monitoring and Right to Know Act (S 24) would require the EPA to resume testing drinking water for perchlorate, while the Protecting Pregnant Women and Children from Perchlorate Act (S 150) would require the agency to set a standard designed specifically to protect pregnant women and children. Boxer has indicated that the Senate is likely to vote on the bills this year.
MASS TRANSIT GETS THE NOD
Americans are taking advantage of alternative modes of transportation more than ever. Use of public transportation has grown 32% since 1995, more than double the 13% population growth rate.
Yet 31 of the largest transit systems face financial hardships that could cripple them within months, 40% of rural Americans don't have access to public transportation, and the American Public Transportation Association (APTA) estimates 559 projects worth more than $8 billion could begin within three months if — like approved road and bridge projects — federal funding is made available.
As a candidate Obama pledged to reform the federal tax code to equalize the tax benefits of both ridesharing and public transit usage to relieve traffic congestion. His goal is to encourage urban planners to take advantage of such policies when drafting transportation and infrastructure plans for their cities.
He's stated that he would double the investment in the federal Jobs Access and Reverse Commute program, which funds programs that offer transportation to low-income workers who live in urban areas and commute to the suburbs. This year the program is set to receive $165 million.
The APTA proposes that the new federal transportation funding bill should double the allocation for public transportation to $123 billion, focus more on public-private partnerships, and allocate 20% of an increase in the federal gas tax to mass-transit accounts.